The Christmas Story is Messy and So Is Mine

It’s tempting to line up our friends and acquaintances in columns under headings of “perfect family”, “good christian”, “struggling addict” or “hopeless case”.  

When I label someone I justify my response-good or bad-and let myself off the hook for sharing the extravagant, unrestrained love God has shown to me.

The longer I live, the more people I meet, the more certain I am that the neat little categories we like to use are not very helpful.

If I decide they are “doing well” then they don’t need my help.

And if I decide they are “beyond hope” then why waste my time or effort?

Either way, I’m wrong.

Christmas is the story of God come down-Emmanuel-of Love reaching down into a dark and lonely world. It was hardly tidy, it was a Messy Christmas

Advent: Ponder and Praise

The nativity story is full of contrasts.

Old Elizabeth, young Mary-both bearing sons. Zechariah’s doubts, a young maid’s submission-he was supposed to understand God through study and practice, she was the ignorant one yet trusted.

Priests within a Sabbath walk from the manger slept on unaware that God had broken forth into their world while outcast shepherds got a personalized and most glorious birth announcement writ large across the sky.

Perhaps the most poignant contrast of all is a tired young mother pondering quietly what this might mean for her and her newborn Son and shepherds telling everyone they meet what they saw and praising God for giving them the privilege.

Mary, too, pondered all of these events, treasuring each memory in her heart.

20 The shepherds returned to their flocks, praising God for all they had seen and heard, and they glorified God for the way the experience had unfolded just as the heavenly messenger had predicted.

Luke 2:19-20 VOICE

My heart beats with Mary’s. She knew and understood part of what was going on but had no way to anticipate or comprehend precisely what it meant to be the mother of Messiah.

She pondered the shepherds’ visit and their story.

I’ve pondered too.

“Ponder” means “think about (something) carefully, especially before making a decision or reaching a conclusion.” (Oxford Dictionary, online).

What we don't know about Mary and Joseph - Under His Wings

When Dominic was killed I dragged everything I thought I knew about God and how He worked in the world into the glaring light of child loss. I examined and turned it over. I compared my notions with Scripture and with my ongoing experience.

I was forced to make a decision.

I had to reach a conclusion: Was God who He said He was or was this all a made up, feel good story I told myself? Is the Bible true? Is Jesus real? Was His sacrifice sufficient and does it guarantee eternal life?

After long and careful thought I decided that my Heavenly Father was faithful, His character is trustworthy, every promise He made is “yes” and “amen” in Christ.

I imagine Mary had many moments when she wondered what God was doing in and through her. I suspect she had her doubts.

I think often of the ultimate pain and horror she endured at the crucifixion.

But she held on.

She believed.

And the Lord called her blessed.

I am holding on to truth and hope with both hands.

Sometimes my faith wears thin.

But I know, know, know that my Father is trustworthy.

QUESTIONS:

  • We really don’t know how much Mary understood about what was happening in and through her. Gabriel visited her, yes, but even his message wasn’t comprehensive. Have you ever thought about what or how much Mary knew? Does it give you courage to trust God as things unfold in your own life?
  • How has child loss impacted your faith?
  • The shepherds praised the Lord because everything the angel told them was accurate. Has your personal experience affirmed the truth of Scripture?
  • Can you find reasons to praise the Lord even here, even now?

PRAYER:

Father God,

You are the Almighty God, the King of the Universe, Creator and Sustainer of life. You know the end from the beginning. You are working all things for my ultimate good and for Your glory.

But it’s hard to walk along a path when I can’t see far ahead. Sometimes it’s a struggle to trust and not be afraid. I do ponder things in my heart. I want to make sense of what You are doing (at least what I think You are doing) and what I’m feeling.

Help me lean into your truth, to trust your heart even when I can’t trace your hand. I believe, help my unbelief!

Thank You for every evidence that points my heart in the right direction. Thank You for showing me more of yourself. Teach me to praise You for all You are and not only all You do.

Amen

Advent: Behind The Scenes

So often it seems like God is dragging His feet, holding out on us, refusing to grant something we desperately desire.

The people of Israel waited and waited and waited for Messiah.

Many felt abandoned.

But God wasn’t being slow, He was waiting for the precisely perfect moment to send His Son.

Image may contain: night, text that says '+ when the fullness of time had come God sent forth His Son Galalians s'

Around the time of Elizabeth’s amazing pregnancy and John’s birth, the emperor in Rome, Caesar Augustus, required everyone in the Roman Empire to participate in a massive census— the first census since Quirinius had become governor of Syria. Each person had to go to his or her ancestral city to be counted.

4-5 Mary’s fiancé Joseph, from Nazareth in Galilee, had to participate in the census in the same way everyone else did. Because he was a descendant of King David, his ancestral city was Bethlehem, David’s birthplace. Mary, who was now late in her pregnancy that the messenger Gabriel had predicted, accompanied Joseph. While in Bethlehem, she went into labor and gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped the baby in a blanket and laid Him in a feeding trough because the inn had no room for them.

Luke 2:1-7 VOICE

An entire kingdom was mobilized to fulfill prophecy!

Because Rome demanded taxes from conquered peoples and wanted every penny owed, a census was ordered. Because the only way to get an accurate count was to order folks back to their ancestral hometowns, Joseph had to go to Bethlehem. Because of the timing, Mary was bursting with baby and gave birth.

Just as promised: “But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting. ” Micah 5:2 KJV

Caesar was acting in his own self-interest.

Mary and Joseph were complying with the law.

Nature took its course as Jesus grew in the womb.

All the while God was weaving together the strands behind the scene to bring forth His purpose and provide salvation for His people!

I’m not privy to everything God is doing in the world. And, frankly, what I see sometimes looks like He’s not doing much. I want Him to step in and make things right according to my limited knowledge.

But He’s working behind the scenes in ways I can’t imagine or comprehend.

He has a purpose and plan that will not be thwarted.

I do not for one moment believe that God Took My Child. But I absolutely, positively believe that He is using what the enemy meant for evil to accomplish good.

So I try to be patient.

Even though it’s a lifetime.

Because no one who waits on the Lord will be disappointed.

QUESTIONS:

  • It’s so easy to read the familiar words and forget that each element of the story was important in fulfilling prophecy. Have you ever looked back on a series of seemingly unrelated events and realized how they came together to orchestrate God’s purpose in your own life?
  • I have often wondered how much Joseph and Mary might have thought about (if they thought about it) the words of the prophets as they fulfilled God’s commission to faithfully raise His Son. Can you put yourself in their position and imagine the weight of responsibility and also the fear of uncertainty they might have experienced in real time?
  • I admit that waiting is hard. I long for a supernatural revelation that gives my heart a handle on how long I’m going to have to practice patience. But I take some comfort in the multitude of promises kept by my God and His ever-faithful, always trustworthy character. When your heart doubts, what promises do you cling to?

PRAYER:

Lord,

You literally moved Heaven and Earth to bring salvation to Your people. You work where I can’t see and in ways I can’t comprehend.

But it’s hard to hope when things look dark and it seems as if You are slow to act. And sometimes it looks as if evil, death and sin are winning. That’s when my heart has the most trouble holding onto hope.

Help me cling to truth in spite of my feelings. Give me light in the darkness. Teach my heart to trust and sing hope over my soul. You are Faithful and True.

Even if I wait a lifetime my waiting will not be in vain. Every one of Your promises is “yes” and “amen” in Christ. The end is guaranteed. Victory is assured.

May I rest in Your unfailing love.

Amen

Advent: Dancing the Song of My Savior God

A few times in my life I’ve been utterly overwhelmed by an outpouring of God’s grace and mercy.

And like David who danced before the Lord when the Ark was returned to Jerusalem, I simply can’t contain myself. I want to move my body in response to the rhythm of the good news.

So I understand Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s blessing:

And Mary said,

I’m bursting with God-news;
    I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.
God took one good look at me, and look what happened—
    I’m the most fortunate woman on earth!
What God has done for me will never be forgotten,
    the God whose very name is holy, set apart from all others.
His mercy flows in wave after wave
    on those who are in awe before him.
He bared his arm and showed his strength,
    scattered the bluffing braggarts.
He knocked tyrants off their high horses,
    pulled victims out of the mud.
The starving poor sat down to a banquet;
    the callous rich were left out in the cold.
He embraced his chosen child, Israel;
    he remembered and piled on the mercies, piled them high.
It’s exactly what he promised,
    beginning with Abraham and right up to now.

56 Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months and then went back to her own home. Luke 1:46-56 MSG

My Soul Magnifies the Lord – Upside-Down Savior

Known as The Magnificat, Mary’s heartfelt response to the work God was doing in and through her is a perfect introduction into the upside down Kingdom Christ came to establish.

The Jews were under occupation, under the thumb of a pagan Roman government where might made right and the outcast poor had no hope for justice.

But the Holy Spirit revealed to Mary how very great was this Good News-no longer would evil reign nor the wicked rule. God’s mercy would be supreme! His people would be blessed and every single promise of the Lord would be fulfilled.

So she danced to the tune of salvation. Even though the music was faint and far away.

I’m invited to dance to the same song because God’s promises are sure.

Sometimes I have to strain to hear the music.

But if I lean in and listen closely, it’s there.

QUESTIONS:

  • Have you ever experienced a moment when you were utterly overwhelmed with a sense of God’s goodness and faithful love? How did it make you feel?
  • Mary’s song emphasizes the truth that God will not allow injustice to reign. He will make every single thing right. But it can be hard to wait sometimes. Does this promise make waiting any easier for your heart? Why or why not?
  • Sometimes we look around and think, “What’s the point of trying to live a righteous life? The rich get richer and the poor get poorer!” Do you think that there is an eternal reward that outweighs any temporal inequity?
  • Music and dancing go hand in hand. God has created us to be physical and sensual beings. Have you ever been so moved by truth (especially when presented in musical form) that you could not help by responding with your whole body?

PRAYER:

Father God, You never fail. Your purposes are sure and cannot be thwarted. You will not allow injustice to rule forever. You sent your Son to set the record straight, to pay the price and to squash evil tyranny.

It’s true that He has not yet established His Kingdom in its fullness. But the enemy doesn’t stand a chance. The devil is on the defensive and we are guaranteed victory.

Help me hold on to the fullness of the gospel message-not only that my eternal hope is secure (and those I love who have received salvation through Christ) but that You are working in and through your people to restore justice and equity in the world right now.

Make me an instrument of your peace. Give me words of hope to share with a frightened and confused world. Let me lead others in the dance of my Savior.

Amen

Advent: Highly Favored

Luke tells us that his purpose in writing is to give an orderly and full account of the life of Jesus.

It’s far from a dry “news report” though. It’s full of personal encounters, emotion and delightful detail.

I love the description of a (probably slightly perplexed and perhaps frightened Mary) and her older cousin Elizabeth:

 Afterward, Mary arose and hurried off to the hill country of Judea, to the village where Zechariah and Elizabeth lived. 40 Arriving at their home, Mary entered the house and greeted Elizabeth. 41 At the moment she heard Mary’s voice, the baby[a] within Elizabeth’s womb jumped and kicked. And suddenly, Elizabeth was filled to overflowing with the Holy Spirit! 42 With a loud voice she prophesied with power:

“Mary! You are a woman given the highest favor
    and privilege above all others.
    For your child[b] is destined to bring God great delight.
43 How did I deserve such a remarkable honor
    to have the mother of my Lord[c] come and visit me?
44 The moment you came in the door and greeted me,
    my baby danced inside me with ecstatic joy!
45 Great favor is upon you, for you have believed
    every word spoken to you from the Lord.”

Luke 1: 39-45 TPT

It’s unclear from the text but it could be that Elizabeth and Mary were close before they shared the secret that they both carried sons of promise. For some reason Mary went quickly to her after the visit from Gabriel.

Was it to buy time before her belly gave her away? Was it to seek godly counsel or confirmation from an older, wiser woman? Was it simply because she had heard Elizabeth was also pregnant when it seemed unlikely it could be?

I don’t know.

What I do know is that every person in the nativity story was a real live flesh-and-blood individual who was as trapped in time as I am. They had to walk out events as they happened and didn’t know the end from the beginning even if they’d been given promises from an angel.

God provided extraordinary confirmation for them both. What a beautiful moment!

Not only did John leap in Elizabeth’s womb, the Holy Spirit came upon her and gave her a message for young Mary. Mary was “highly favored”, chosen as a vessel of honor and blessing.

Reflection on the Visitation of Mary | Society of the Holy Child Jesus

I imagine Mary held those words close to her heart over the next many months when whispers and sideways glances followed her everywhere.

I know I hold close the words the Lord has given me.

When I read Scripture, the Holy Spirit often quickens my spirit to take note and take hold of a verse or two. He whispers, “This one is for YOU”, to my heart.

I underline it, write it down, meditate on it, come back to it and rest in the truth that if God says it, it’s true.

Mary was highly favored because she believed “every word spoken to her by the Lord”.

Jesus was born a single time-no other woman will ever again carry God’s Son in her womb. But we can each carry God’s word in our hearts.

When we do, we too are vessels of honor and blessing.

QUESTIONS:

  • Have you ever stopped a moment and thought about how the people in Bible stories were, in fact, real people? If not, do it now. How does that impact your understanding of the text?
  • Mary was an unmarried virgin who became pregnant. No matter that Gabriel assured her it was by the Holy Spirit, I imagine others thought something very different. Why do you think she went to see Elizabeth?
  • Which of Elizabeth’s words to Mary mean the most to you?
  • Has the Holy Spirit ever quickened verses that you read? How do you make a note of them? Have you ever come back to them later and realized God used them in a special way to encourage your heart?

PRAYER:

Lord,

Sometimes trusting the promises is a struggle. I want to believe, I try to believe but no amount of willful conjuring on my part can make me believe.

But for this, I have Jesus and your Holy Spirit. Like Elizabeth and Mary, You quicken your life, hope and power within me.

You have given me your word. Your word is truth. I can rest assured in the promises that have been fulfilled and know the others will come to fruition when the time is right.

Help me believe every single word You have spoken. Help me be a vessel of honor-to hold close and hold dear what you plant in my heart.

Amen

Advent: A Willing Heart

It’s easy to read the stories of Zechariah and Mary, both visited by the angel Gabriel with unlikely and hard-to-believe messages, and wonder why Zechariah was struck dumb when he asked a question but Mary was commended.

The difference is heart attitude.

26-28 Then, six months after Zacharias’ vision, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a Galilean town, Nazareth by name, to a young woman who was engaged to a man called Joseph. The girl’s name was Mary. The angel entered her room and said, “Greetings to you, Mary. O favoured one!—the Lord be with you!”

29-33 Mary was deeply perturbed at these words and wondered what such a greeting could possibly mean. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; God loves you dearly. You are going to be the mother of a son, and you will call him Jesus. He will be great and will be known as the Son of the most high. The Lord God will give him the throne of his forefather, David, and he will be king over the people of Jacob for ever. His reign shall never end.”

34 Then Mary spoke to the angel, “How can this be,” she said, “I am not married!”

35-37 But the angel made this reply to her—“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, the power of the most high will overshadow you. Your child will therefore be called holy—the Son of God. Your cousin Elisabeth has also conceived a son, old as she is. Indeed, this is the sixth month for her, a woman who was called barren. For no promise of God can fail to be fulfilled.”

38 “I belong to the Lord, body and soul,” replied Mary, “let it happen as you say.” And at this the angel left her.

Luke 1:26-38 PHILLIPS

Zechariah was a priest who had studied the Torah and should have understood the sovereignty of God. He didn’t ask a question about how Gabriel’s prophecy would come true, he asked for proof that it WOULD come true.

He questioned God’s character and faithfulness.

Mary was a poor young woman who was (most likely) unfamiliar with Scripture except what she had heard in the synagogue.

She knew how babies were made and asked a very practical question.

She wasn’t suggesting God COULDN’T do it, she simply wondered HOW He would do it.

It is portrayed so sweetly in Christmas plays and Christmas movies:

Mary bowing her head in response to the angel Gabriel’s announcement that she has been chosen to bear the Savior.

I don’t know what went through her mind before she answered.  I’m not sure she had a clue what submission to God’s will would look like as it played out across the months and years.

I only know that she was willing.

And God honored her willingness to bend her knee and her heart regardless of the unknown cost.

I’m not as noble as Mary.  I didn’t answer quickly when God allowed my life to be turned upside down. I kicked and screamed and resisted as long as I could.

But who can fight Almighty God?

How can I carry on if I resist the Only One Who can carry me?

My heart still balks.

It. Is. Still. So. Very. Hard.

But I bow my head and heart each morning and ask for the grace to make it true:

“Behold, I am the servant of the LORD; let it be to me according to your word.” ~Luke 1:38

hand-coffee-roosevelt

QUESTIONS:

  • I know most of the people reading this are bereaved parents. While Mary was indeed “highly favored” the role for which she was chosen was one of heartache as well as honor. If you knew then what you know now, would you have still chosen to bear and love your child?
  • It is absolutely OK to bring our questions, doubts and fears to God. Do you see the difference between Zechariah’s and Mary’s questions? Or do you think there was a difference? Why or why not?
  • Have you reached a point of submission regarding the loss of your child? If you have, how did you get there? If you haven’t, what lament do you need to offer up to God so His grace and strength can fill your heart?
  • It’s easy to read Bible stories like make-believe fairy tales and discount the flesh and blood humans who lived them in real time. Does it help your heart hold onto hope to realize that none of them could see the end from the beginning? Does it encourage you that they were able to rest in the Lord’s faithful and unfailing love? Why or why not?

PRAYER:

Father God,

Oh, how I long for Mary’s faith! How my heart yearns to be always willing, always wanting to let You do whatever You deem good and right. But I balk at giving up control-even as I admit I have no control-to You or anyone else.

I am often dismayed and even angry at the things You allow. I am distraught that You don’t intervene when You most certainly can and I think You most definitely should.

Help me submit willingly to Your plan. Help me wait patiently for the fruit of obedience. Give me strength to endure even when the road is long and the path inky darkness.

You are Faithful and True. You are Light and Life. Help me hold onto that truth and rest in Your goodness and love.

Amen

Nothing Tidy About That First Christmas

We’ve whitewashed everything about this scene:  beatific Mary gazing serenely at a cleaned up baby cozy in a cleaned up manger towered over by Joseph and surrounded by adoring shepherds and freshly groomed, sweet smelling animals.

It was nothing like that.

Birth is pain and sweat and effort.

And messy.  So, so messy.

I like to think more clearly about what that night was like.  It helps my heart to know that even while God was being birthed as a man into the world He created, He didn’t hide the hard.

Read the rest here: https://thelifeididntchoose.com/2018/12/24/christmas-drama/

Hopelessness-The First Step To Celebrating Christmas


I don’t know about you but I’ve never thought of hopelessness as something I wanted on my resume.

Hopelessness is typically tossed into the pile of “negative” feelings we all acknowledge but don’t want to experience and if we do, we try to minimize, rationalize or disguise them.

If I admit to it at all, I tend to look downward, whisper quickly and pray that no one takes much notice because it feels shameful.

But maybe hopelessness is the first step to truly celebrating Christmas.

Read the rest here: https://thelifeididntchoose.com/2018/12/19/qualified-by-hopelessness-an-empty-heart-can-be-filled/

Advent For Hurting Hearts: Announced By An Angel


When the angel came to Mary and told her she was to be the mother of God’s Son,  she was (rightly) confused.

Her first thoughts ran to what she knew and understood:  children are conceived by the joining of man and woman, she was a virgin.

How can this be?”

Read the rest here: https://thelifeididntchoose.com/2017/12/09/advent-for-the-brokenhearted-announced-by-an-angel/

Advent For Hurting Hearts: Birthplace Foretold

One of the things I struggle with since Dominic ran ahead to heaven is this:  is every detail of history planned by God?  Or are there general outlines filled in by human choices (good and bad) and leading ultimately to God’s working out HIS story within OUR stories?

How do I reconcile God’s sovereignty and my free will?

I’m still working on that. 

Read the rest here: https://thelifeididntchoose.com/2017/12/04/advent-for-the-brokenhearted-birthplace-foretold/